This year marks the 25th anniversary of my Zoo Director position at Chahinkapa Zoo. Recently, the Department of Tourism spent time with me filming an interview recalling my 25 years.
The chronicle of a little spider monkey is among the favorites. The following is Niko’s story and first appeared in this column 14 years ago. Thank you, Daily News, for being with us through the years.
Niko is a 6 month old spider monkey. He was born April 3, 2005 in early morning. He was immediately abandoned by his mother. Severe bruising indicated that she may have first injured him. We are not entirely sure why animals abandon their young. Sometimes they do this if the newborn is not developed normally.
This is not the case with Niko, as he was a fully developed and normal newborn primate. It is typically the dominant female in the troop who will abandon their young. This is true of Niko’s mother, CeCe. We let children know that this does not make CeCe a bad monkey because we are not sure why she did this. Zookeepers also tried to re-introduce Niko to CeCe after separating the rest of the monkey troop. This was not successful.
Surrogate parenting a spider monkey is not easy task. Initially there were many health concerns. Finding the right formula is just one of the many factors in Niko’s survival. Dr. Matz and his staff at the Dakota Veterinary Hospital are outstanding. There were several late night calls to the vet. hospital for purpose of hydrating Niko with electrolytes. His odds of making it to three months were not in his favor. Some of the other zoos that have had to hand raise were not as fortunate. Dehydration was a main contributor in those cases. Others were successful.
I believe that the nurturing was a big factor in Niko’s survival. Spider monkey babies attach to their mother’s hair for the first year of their life. They move around her body changing position and riding on her back. Niko has been with me since the first day. Initially, this responsibility was to be shared by all staff (all staff are biologists, zoologists, or other science related field). But, it wasn’t feasible for the zookeepers to care for Niko due to their many tasks with the other seventy species in the zoo. As part of my administrative duties, I spend a great deal of time in the office and classroom.
Soon, Niko became a one-person monkey. Early on, we had volunteers in the community help with Niko. He now has sharp teeth and is comfortable with few people so that is not a viable plan any longer. My mother, Shirley Hunkins, my husband, Tom Schmaltz and daughter Amy are helpers in Niko’s care. He stays with any of the three for several hours at a time.
Niko sleeps attached to my head and you will often see him doing that throughout the zoo day as well. He is now an excellent climber and containing him in a basket or playpen does not work well. He does have play time on the ground however and enjoys toys, BUT I am always in his sight. If I venture off into another room, he now follows. He is also very vocal!!! He rides in a Snugli baby carrier much of the time.
Niko’s future: Eventually it will be time to put Niko into a habitat with fellow spider monkeys. We will have to rearrange the troop and make Niko the only male. We are working with other zoos already. The move won’t be until winter or spring. I sit with Niko behind the monkey habitat in the zoo to start his acclimation process. He is not entirely interested in the troop. The most interested in him is the other baby male (from a different mother) who is 1.5 years old.
Although this is not a planned event. Raising Niko has been a rewarding process. However, I do caution, that monkeys do not make good pets. Hand-raising Niko was out of need.